Posted on March 4, 2011 By Mina

Children and prunes on the balance scale

The Davis Enterprise

tt Ramirez, Michael Strom, Don Mooney and Joey Miller


Against the advice of its own Scientific Review Committee, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation recently approved the use of the toxic pesticide methyl iodide. The newly approved pesticide causes cancer, birth defects, reproductive toxicity and nervous system effects, among other chronic health hazards. The approval allows the use of the fumigant on strawberry, tomatoes and grape fields, all of which are popularly grown in Yolo County.

It is a troubling matter for us living in Davis and the surrounding area. Leukemia, brain cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and neuroblastoma are some possible health complications from pesticide exposure Farm workers and children are gravely at risk. Children’s growing bodies, size and interaction with the environment increase their vulnerability to toxic chemicals.

Additionally, schools do not have the necessary protection zones established for toxic chemicals, such as methyl iodide. Current state regulations do not give agricultural commissioners the authority to establish comprehensive buffer zones that would prohibit or restrict the application of pesticides around schools.

Studies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Acute Illnesses Associated with Pesticide Exposure at Schools” and the Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics’ “Agricultural pesticides and risk of childhood cancers” demonstrate that pesticide exposure can increase the risk of children developing an acute or chronic disease such as leukemia, brain cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and neuroblastoma. The studies call for stronger pesticide protection around schools.

In the past four months, Pesticide Watch has surveyed all of the counties in California to inquire about buffer zones around schools for restrictive material pesticides. In Yolo County, not much has changed since Jonathan Edwards’ story in The Enterprise titled “Nonprofit urges Yolo to be example on pesticides.” Prune trees, cotton and grapes continue to have better protection than children.

Pesticide Watch discovered that many counties do not consider the lack of school buffer zones an issue, claiming that farmers do not spray around schools. That may be so, but why is there so much variance between counties, even among rural/agricultural counties such as Yolo County? For example, Stanislaus requires a general protection zone of a quarter-mile for restricted use pesticides while San Joaquin has no such requirement.

Less than half of California’s counties across have established school buffer zones for pesticide use. Of the 58 counties across California, only 26 have existing buffer zones.

Protection zones between counties vary from 100 feet (0.019 miles) in counties such as Napa and Placer to 2 miles in Imperial County. Additionally, buffer zones vary within their counties. For example, Riverside County imposes additional conditions that require a buffer zone of a mile in the Palo Verde School District while the rest of the county settles for a half-mile.

The significant variance within and between counties can cause confusion and inconsistencies when planning the use of the pesticide by farmers and applicators. Additionally, it makes it difficult for parents to understand the protection zones that may apply to their child’s school.

Toxicologists from various universities, including UC Davis, agree that children continue to be exposed to pesticides days or months after the application is made.

California should establish school protection zones that apply to all pesticides and be the same across the state to ensure equal protection for all children in California. Several schools in Davis are surrounded by or in close proximity to agricultural fields. There are agricultural fields across the road from Harper Junior High and within a quarter-mile of Montgomery Elementary.

The buffer zone for schools in Yolo County is a quarter-mile, which does not compare to the half-mile buffer zone for sensitive crops. Why?

Do we need to establish a monetary value for our children’s health to be equally or better protected than crops we grow?

This pattern appears to be consistent across counties. For example, Placer County has a 4-mile buffer zone around prune trees to protect them from the application of propanil herbicide by air and a 100-foot buffer zone around schools. While prunes may be sensitive fruits, they are not the future citizens and leaders of California. Do children not deserve better protection than prunes?

In 2000, Mound Elementary School in Ventura County experienced a “fog” that turned out to be a cloud of the toxic pesticide cholopyrifos applied in a lemon orchard 30 feet from the school. Students went home sick and experienced dizziness, stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting, among other things.

This event triggered California to enact AB 947 in 2002. The law authorized county agricultural commissioners to limit or ban the use of pesticides within a quarter-mile of a school. While it was an important step, our children need further protection. The state should establish a protection/buffer zone for schools and parks that apply across the state and give counties the option to further restrict the use of pesticides. In this way, we can make sure all schools across the state are under the same basic protection.

While some counties claim there is no need for protection zones around their schools because they are not surrounded by farms using harmful pesticides, establishing a comprehensive and consistent protection zones for schools would eliminate unnecessary confusion on protection zones for children.

We should not place the health of our children in a balance scale with sensitive crops. School buffer zones are an important step toward sustainable agriculture, and toward protecting farm workers, children, our soil and our environment.

Parents who are interested in creating a least-toxic-pesticide policy for their school, inside and out, should contact Samantha at

— Jannette Ramirez is the student organizer with Pesticide Watch Education Fund at UC Davis; Michael Strom is president of Students for Sustainable Agriculture; Don Mooney, a César Chávez Elementary parent, is an environmental attorney; and Joey Miller has a master’s degree in public health from UCD.